Monday, April 25, 2011

Manners, please...

Tony Latham as Truffaldino, Angela Kriese as Smeraldina in NAU Theatre's "The Servant of Two Masters."  Photo by Haleigh Sakas
  Today in a meeting, a colleague pointed out the dictionary definition of culture is a "refinement of mind, taste, and manners; artistic and intellectual development."

  I love that definition (it comes from the Oxford English Dictionary, 2009, by the way) and I particularly enjoy thinking about how culture is a "refinement of manners."  I've recently become fascinated by old-fashioned etiquette books that give us essential advice on living--such as this gem from Emily Post in 1922 on "Going Down The Aisle of a Theatre."

  "The host, or whichever gentleman has the tickets, (if there is no host, the hostess usually hands them to one of the gentlemen before leaving her house), goes down the aisle first and gives the checks to the usher, and the others follow in the order in which they are to sit and which the hostess must direct. It is necessary that each knows who follows whom, particularly if a theater party arrives after the curtain has gone up...For nothing is more awkward and stupid than to block the aisle at the row where their seats are, while their hostess “sorts them.” 

  Some of etiquette books are terribly out of date (or just plain common sense) but, as I tell my son, it never hurts to have manners.  Sometimes asking permission, following directions, meeting deadlines, and letting neatness count help us better navigate an ever-increasingly confusing world.  These outward forms of polite society help us get along easier.

  I also recently heard community artist William Cochran talk about how public art can help ease the friction of living in close quarters with other people (it's basically the macro equivalent of manners).  Art is another outward form of society. 

  Manners.  Culture.  They are very, very similar.  So is it so surprising that cultural performances have a nuanced form of refined manners?

  My son and I went to a recent Commedia dell'arte performance of "The Servant of Two Masters" performed by NAU Theatre.  NAU Theatre is very simple with its instructions on Theatre Etiquette--turn off your cell phones, don't take pictures, and no eating.  Very easy for us.

  I also like another synposis of manners for live theatre from CAL Berkeley.
1.  Arrive on time and be seated 15 minutes before the show.
2.  Be aware and remain quiet.
3.  Show appreciation by applauding.
4. Participate by responding to the action onstage.
5.  Concentrate to help the performers. 

  These pointers are not only things that will help the performers do better, they are ways in which we can enjoy the performance even more.  So when my son laughs hysterically at the physical comedy, he is not only completely engaged, he is actually displaying exquisite manners.
  One more thing about theatre etiquette that you can't live without.  When you are getting to your seat, always face the stage and press as close to the backs of the seats you are facing as you can.

Monday, April 18, 2011

The Party You May be Missing

  The movie I went to last Wednesday had a full house.  It also had subtitles, there were no previews, and we were personally greeted with an introduction by our own little film tour guide.
  Would you fall out of your seats if I told you it was at the Harkins Theatre in Flagstaff?

  Yes, it was at Harkins, because a good little Samaritan, Patrick Schweiss, director of the Sedona International Film Festival used his influence and bonhomie to bring independent films up the hill and show them in Flagstaff.   The independent film series is now in Flagstaff every second Wednesday of the month.
  Lucky us.

  The film, "Biutiful," a Spanish film by Alejandro González Iñárritu and starring Javier Bardem, hit an almost-perfect pitch between life and larger-than-life.  If it were a Hollywood film, it would have tied up all the loose ends, but as a Spanish film, it made sure that it didn't.  And that made it really compelling.

   To me, a good film is like a really good conversation with a new friend.  It surprises you, and proves to be a fresh perspective, yet it is a true thing and resonates.  "Biutiful" was a really great, late night conversation, one that had numerous listeners propped on pillows all over the floor, perhaps after a few cocktails, and in a not so pretty part of town, listening to Javier Bardem tell his story.  It was like the conversation that made you happy you went to that party you almost missed.

  I was introduced to "cinema as an art form" through foreign film.  I started watching Spanish, French, and Italian films, and because they were a new style and it took me longer to read the subtitles and digest the meaning, I thought about them longer.  I began to see film as a conversation starter, not as a substitute for having to talk.  I was always surprised by the way people acted in these foreign films, and I began to see that they way I responded to life wasn't the only way.  I began to remember them.  Films like "Les Enfants du Paradis" and "Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown" made me start thinking about expanding my friendships.

  Then I realized that American cinema was just as interesting--I was just hanging out with the wrong crowd.  So I started going to parties that David Lynch, Jim Jarmusch, Woody Allen and the Coen Bros. hosted.  And while maybe they were jerks sometimes, and maybe they were tragically hip at other times, I started enjoying the different things that they wanted to talk about.

  When I get invited to a "screen conversation", where maybe the people are just casual acquaintances, but the talk is sure to be interesting, I try to go. It's like my social life--you can only blow off so many invitations before they stop coming in. We don't have as many great films as bigger cities, but there are more and more.  I figure, if I want to keep the parties going, I've got to show up for them!  Because nobody likes talking to themselves...

Monday, April 11, 2011

Live Theatre: Controlled Chaos

Pine Forest Theatre Troupe performs "Still Life with Iris"
  On Friday night I went to see my son's 8th grade performance of "Still Life with Iris" at Pine Forest School.  The cast consisted entirely of his classmates, and it was creatively cobbled together with costumes made in their handwork section and props from their woodworking class.

  "Still Life with Iris" written by Steven Dietz, is a sweet, magical tale about how memories, both good and bad, shape us and make us who we are.  The cast is made up of essential blue-collar workers such as the the Day Breaker (who ropes in the moon every morning), the Thunder Maker (who bottles thunder for use in a rainstorm), and the Memory Mender, who sews up everyone's "past coat" that contains all their memories. 

  Isaac played the Flower Painter.  His job consisted of, you guessed it, painting the flowers.  I was proud of him, and he was proud of himself.  "Mom, I didn't hesitate at all when I said my lines!"

  In a strange twist of fate, Isaac and I had seen NAU Theatre's production of "Still Life" four years ago. It was one of the first theatre performances he had seen, and since my colleague was directing the show, I got to take Isaac and his friend backstage to meet the actors.  I still remember how terribly he blushed when he got to meet Annabel Lee, his favorite character.  And ever since then, he's been pretty spellbound.  The actors love him--he is always the loudest laugher and the most appreciative of their physical humor. 

  I love film, and I can appreciate good television, but for one reason I think live theatre is almost better than screen-viewing--the actors can respond to your enthusiasm, laughter, and applause.You feel like you're involved in their performance.  I think that makes us more engaged in the story, more likely to take something away.

  There was a scene in "Still Life" where one character was putting on his "past coat" and he couldn't find his sleeve.  He played off the "mistake" so well and my friend Rachel and I found it so amusing and charming that our laughter had us crying.  You just don't get inadvertent comedy like that from a static screen.  Live theatre is precious and magical because you get a sense of controlled chaos.  It is super intoxicating and exciting.

  If you like live theatre too, and you missed my son's performance of Still Life with Iris, you're in luck. NAU Theatre is showing "Servant of Two Masters" a great Commedia dell'arte performance with lots of physical humor.  The show runs April 15-23 at the Studio Theatre. 

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Community Art is Sexy

"Community Bridge" by William and Teresa Cochran, and the entire town of Frederick, MD.
William Cochran, who has worked with his wife Teresa on many community art projects--most notably "Community Bridge" --spoke at NAU's Ashurst Hall last Thursday night.

For eight months now, I've been trying to formulate and articulate my burgeoning thoughts about how Americans should attend more art events, how art helps make us better people, and how art plays a huge role in a sense of community.

But on Thursday, I heard the PREACHER of art and community (and even though he was preaching to the choir, it was a very loud, responsive choir.)

Right away, William made clear his thoughts that "Culture becomes a lubrication for living together" (which makes art sound really sexy,) and talked about how public art can help ease the friction of living in close quarters with other people (it's basically the macro equivalent of manners).  It unites people across divisions.  "The power of culture derives from its social networks," Cochran said.  Meaning that public art is powerful and successful when many different networks and groups are involved, listened to and engaged. 

Cochran also talked about the 'danger' of gentrification, and warned that diversity, revitalization and involvement all need to be present to prevent displacement of lower-income residents. Although every public art project is risky business (gentrification being one of those risks,) art can also leverage a community for engagement and change. "It can be a powerful catalyst," said Cochran.

I thought it was perfect timing, and appropriate knowledge for our own Flagstaff community projects--especially the most recent revitalization project in Southside.  In last Thursday's FlagLive's article "Southside Rising", Eric Betz, the author, posed the question, "The Southside is seeing the most revitalization in its history, (such as the city's street projects, new artistic bike racks and street furniture) but can it keep developing without losing its soul?"

Questions like that make me remember what I love about Flagstaff.  We're always asking ourselves "Yes, but does it have soul?"  Large budgets can never replace "style", and community art projects must reflect the distinctive styles of many people.  People of Flagstaff seem to innately know this.

And so I leave you, Flagstaff citizens, with a paraphrase of William Cochran's hypothetical question.  "If it were possible to create any kind of public art at all in Flagstaff, what would you create?"

The possibilities are endless.
You can  see The Story of Community Bridge, a 30 minute video produced by Perspectives Group Media here